Have your students discovered Artificial Intelligence writing tools yet? Would you even know?
AI programs have become — well — a lot like Sci Fi becoming reality.
Artificial Intelligence is already here
If you’ve used Siri, Google, or Alexa — you’ve used AI.
We love it, right? Get directions, order from the store, settle the dinner discussion on the causes of World War I.
In so many ways, it’s making our lives easier.
What is AI?
According to CSU Global: “Artificial Intelligence is a technology that allows machines and computer applications to mimic human intelligence, learning from experience via iterative processing and algorithmic training.”
Computer programing that learns how to make our lives easier — sounds fabulous!
So fabulous and so easy that AI can now write articles and essays for anyone. Students included…and you probably wouldn’t even know it.
What are AI writing tools?
These are Artificial Intelligence tools designed to produce a written product. (If you haven’t looked into it — they can also design artwork!)
They’re easy to use — put in a prompt, and you’ll receive a finished document. Depending on the tool, you may need to add a bit of information to fill out the writing product, but surprisingly often, the writing is good.
There are a variety of tools out there; many of them are free — all you need is an email to access the program.
Where does this put educators?
We know it doesn’t take long for our tech-savvy (and busy) students to find the latest hacks and shortcuts.
Already college and high school students are using ai to complete writing assignments.
So we know, that if our middle school students haven’t already used an AI writing tool, it won’t be long before they do.
Even plagiarism checkers can’t help us here since they are not sophisticated enough to determine if a document has been written by a human or AI.
As writing teachers, we find ourselves at another educational crossroad. What do we do when our students answer comprehension questions, journal prompts, and essay responses by using AI? How do we combat this powerful technology that is out there for anyone to use – and virtually undetectable?
Update: This Buzzfeed article shares that a college student has created a program to detect documents written by AI. However, the following teaching strategies will can prevent students feeling like they are in a situation where they need to rely on outside help to finish writing projects.
We aren’t helpless…
The biggest needle mover in the classroom has always been the teacher. Always.
Dedicated, passionate teachers are the best defense against technology that robs students of the opportunity to grow as thinkers and writers.
We need to be ready for this technology and how to help our students before they are searching for easier options to complete writing assignments.
It isn’t going to be a one-step solution, but here are some ways we can help our students become authentic, confident writers:
1. Get to know your students as writers
Collect a writing sample.
A writing sample has many benefits. It can help you plan lessons. It can help you determine what your students need, but it will also give you a feel for your students’ writing abilities. If suddenly a student is producing content that sounds dramatically different from their writing sample, you have an opportunity to discuss this along with texts you can compare and contrast.
An additional tool is a questionnaire.
Ask students to share what kind of writer they are. What they feel their strengths are, what they want to improve, and what goals they have for the class.
We know that middle school students won’t often want to share personal feelings out loud, but will answer questions in a more private way like an in-class questionnaire.
When your students know that you are interested in them and how they feel about writing, you have the added benefit of building trust. When you know your students, you have ways to discuss the writing process with them and to understand how you can help them as they work through writing pieces.
2. Teach what plagiarism is
We know students will plagiarize. Sometimes intentionally and sometimes not.
Start by teaching students what plagiarism is. And, like many important lessons, this needs to be repeated throughout the year. Plagiarism includes passing off someone else’s work as your own. So whether students are using AI, an article from the internet, or some words that their friend or parent has written, those are all forms of plagiarism.
In simplest terms, using AI to “write” a paper that is turned in for a grade is cheating. Students need to understand this.
3. Discuss how we learn
Artificial Intelligence is busy learning — and learning fast. What about our students?
A key question for writing teachers is “Where does the learning take place?”
It takes place in the process, in the struggle, in the work.
Is growth mindset still discussed in your classroom? Accepting/embracing challenges is one of its pillars.
Have the frank discussion with your students about the challenges of writing and how writers learn to write. Students need to understand that everyone struggles with writing. Everyone feels like writing is hard, and everyone dreads that little blinking cursor.
What are we learning if we allow a computer to write for us? To make evaluations for us? To write a book report or research paper? How is that improving our brains and our learning?
Point out that your students generally do not write like first graders. Why? Because through practice they have learned how to put ideas together, and there is still more to learn.
Leaning into the growth mindset principles helps our students understand that writing is hard, but hard work helps us learn and grow.
It’s tempting for students to think, I’ll just get a framework from AI or I’ll get some ideas since I’m having trouble getting started. Maybe that’s sounds like a good place to compromise in using AI. However, it’s not providing students an opportunity to struggle with the writing process — and that’s where the learning takes place.
Plagiarism is wrong because it’s fraud. But it’s also robbing your students because they’re missing a learning opportunity. They’re not expanding their skill set (back to the Growth Mindset!).
The one who learns is the person who does the work.
4. Understand their why
We know our students will take shortcuts. They have busy and often stressful lives. Deciding to use AI to generate a paper may seem like the fastest way to get the job done.
But why do students do this?
Is it because they don’t have enough time? Do they not have the skills? Are they insecure about their writing?
Try to understand their why and how you can be part of the solution.
If our students’ goals are just to get the job done, and they don’t see any benefit from writing, they’re going to be more prone to cheating. If it’s all about getting a certain grade, the benefits of writing (critical thinking, organizing thoughts, supporting arguments, etc.) are not even a byproduct.
When time is the issue (and isn’t it always!) give them more time to write. Stretch out that writing project just a little bit more, have more checkpoints with them so that they are getting more feedback from you. Interact with them throughout the writing process.
5. Use writing workshop
If you aren’t already using a writing workshop approach, you should give it a try.
By using mini lessons and providing students time to write in class, you’re modeling skills and building confidence.
You’ll be able to monitor their progress through graphic organizers, sloppy copies, drafts and whatever other writing scaffolding you provide along the way. This means students will have more time to write and receive more in-process feedback from you.
When you work with students in small groups or individual conferences, you’re sharing the writing process with them. You’re going to not only see what they’re actually writing, but be there to help them along the way.
Of course, you can’t use writing workshop for every written response — but for the larger writing products and more complex skills, writing workshop is a game changer when it comes to connecting with student writers and teaching skills. (You can read more about setting up and using writing workshop in this post.)
6. Focus on process not product
So often we are rushed to teach a particular type of writing — argument, research, narrative — that we forget to focus on the writing process.
As teachers, we know this process inside and out and think that our sage middle schoolers must know it as well. Don’t assume that!
Make sure you are guiding students through the writing process that will build their writing skill and confidence. The process is where the learning takes place!
When we focus on the writing process, we’re able to help students every step of the way — from brainstorming to revising.
As a part of this, be sure to read your students’ graphic organizers, idea charts, and drafts.
This will help you catch and redirect students who have gone off the rails (we’ve all seen that with finished writing products!). It also helps plagiarize-proof student writing. You will be able to see where and how students need help in creating their writing products.
Using a simple organizational folder for the project means that you and students can review the entire writing process. This makes writing conferences easy, but also ensures you are working with the student through the writing process.
When the project is complete, students can (and should) review all of their work and self-assess. What did they learn? What skills can they take to the next writing project? What are they most proud of?
An important part of the writing process is that self-reflection and can be done at multiple places while writing.
7. Understand time limits
It’s not always practical for students to write solely in class. However, the more time you can allow for work in class on their writing, the better. Try blocking out two or three classes a week for workshop writing.
This also provides time for you to wander around the class, paying attention to what students are working on — whether on paper or a computer. It’s another opportunity to notice students who need extra help or are stuck somewhere in the writing process.
If students are inclined to use AI when they are under a time crunch, providing time to work in class will help — and that is enhanced greatly when you are “working the room.” Walking around, reviewing, and “desk-side conferencing” provides support and encouragement.
The side benefit of that is it will increase the speed at which you are able to assess papers since you’ll be familiar with their writing topics!
8. Assign authentic, varied writing products
When we think about the function of writing — what is the end goal? What do we really want our students to have achieved at the end of it?
We want them to have learned how to think about a topic, organize thoughts, connect and support ideas, focus those ideas, provide detail — and so on.
Does it matter what the finished product looks like?
Consider asking students to create a unique end product. A skit, podcast, story board, video script, infomercial, documentary script, movie trailer, etc.
The writing purpose (to persuade, narrate, argue) is the same, but the final product is different. Students are often excited to create a video — and the writing product could be the script. The video itself is a fun byproduct of the writing process.
Is there an upside for our students?
What’s the upside? Is there even one?
We know that AI writing tools are going to be an issue for our students — whether in our own classroom or someone else’s. We need to be proactive and realistic that it is going to be a huge temptation for shortcuts. Yes, we want to use technology in our classroom, but we want it to enhance learning not replace it.
Is there a way we can use it in our classrooms? Could students to use an AI writing tool to brainstorm or provide an outline of ideas?
Perhaps, but I keep coming back to the question of who (or what) is doing the learning? We want students to brainstorm, think, consider, create, and generate their own thoughts and ideas. While that is often a struggle, are we willing to give that struggle to a computer? Are we taking away the opportunity for students to learn?
What does that do to the growth mindset that we’re trying to develop?
Is there an upside for teachers?
As teachers, you may see how this can help you plan lessons, provide examples, or generate questions.
Want to give your students an example of narrative writing using transitions? Fabulous, there it is. If you want students to analyze a paragraph, you can customize and create samples of writing quickly.
It’s not that an AI writing tool is bad — like all technology — it has benefits and pitfalls.
What is the reality here?
Well — AI writing tools are a reality. But where does that leave classroom teachers struggling with writing instruction?
We can’t pretend that they don’t exist. Your students probably already know about them and may be tempted to use them. Afterall, they are cool. I mean, really, very cool – almost magical.
But you can be prepared to talk about it, understand why your students might want to use it, and address it.
I believe, as I stated earlier, that teachers are needle movers. We can and must continue to teach students how to think, problem solve, formulate ideas, support their thoughts with facts, and create ways to communicate.
We have to teach students that writing is messy and complicated — that’s okay. Writing is an act of discovery and exploration. And as history has show us time and time again, that isn’t always easy.
You aren’t going to be able to safeguard against all types of plagiarism. It’s just impossible. But we also don’t want to play that game of not trusting students or assuming that they’re always copying from somebody else or another source.
Garner the support of your principal and team to have policies in place that will support both you and your students.
Teaching the writing process and focusing on working with students along the way is a solution we can implement. Most importantly, though, it will benefit our students.
FYI – no AI writing tools were used for this blog post! 😉